Isaan’s last free-flowing river and one of the country’s most ecologically diverse areas is under attack. The government’s water management plans call for dams and watergates to be built on the Songkhram River. If they go ahead, this area will see the same ecological and environmental destruction that other dams in the region have already caused.

By Santiparp Siriwattanaphaiboon

Springing from the Phu Pha Lek mountain in Sakon Nakhon province, the Songkhram River is a tributary of the Mekong River. The Songkhram River basin has an area of around 6,472 square kilometers within five provinces of upper Isaan; Udon Thani, Nong Khai, Bueng Kan, Sakon Nakhon, and Nakhon Phanom.

At a length of 420 kilometers, the Songkhram River is upper Isaan’s longest river. It contributes to a great deal of ecological diversity–from highlands, wetlands, and woodlands, to fields, forests, knolls, sand bars, rapids, and fluvial lakes, to name but a few of the environmental features created or sustained by this river.

During the flooding season, large areas transform into freshwater lakes teeming with fish and other forms of aquatic life. The Songkhram River basin also contains the largest proliferation of floodplain woodlands in all of Isaan.

The wild lotus that flourishes (in the background) in the lakes and floodplain woodlands of the Songkhram river are an abundant source of food for wildlife and locals who also gather them to sell. Photo by Santiparp Siriwattanaphaiboon

This is all thanks to the Songkhram River being the last remaining free-flowing river in Isaan, with no dams or watergates to disrupt the natural flow of the water, sediment, and aquatic wildlife.

Information gathered by the Thai Ban Lower Songkhram Basin Researcher Network in 2005 reveals that the area contains 204 different species of wildlife and naturally occurring plants known to locals. Of the total number, 139 different plants are consumed as food, 83 are used as herbs, 61 can be readily sold on the market, 153 are aquatic wildlife, of which 124 are fish.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also found rare and economically valuable and species such as the Mekong River Catfish (pangasianodon gigas) and the Mekong stingray (dasyatis laosensis) living in the Songkhram River basin. During the rainy season, the Songkhram River helps to relieve the swelling of the Mekong River by taking water inland for about half of its total length, or around 200 kilometers. This results in around 960 square kilometers of land being continuously submerged for three to four months between July and September.

The end result is that the lower Songkhram River basin is one of the most ecologically diverse, fertile, and abundant areas in Thailand. It produces a staggering array of freshwater fisheries, and its farmers can grow crops of both high quality and high frequency thanks to the nutrient-rich silt washed in from the Mekong.

Locals use small long-tailed boats to go fishing in the waters of the Songkhram River. Photo by Santiparp Siriwattanaphaiboon

The Songkhram River basin way of life

The incredible biodiversity and natural abundance in the waters and floodplain woodlands of the Songkhram River basin is reflected in the way of life of its communities.

The floodplain woodlands are home to these communities because they are also the feeding and breeding areas of many species of aquatic wildlife. With its still waters, it is an ideal shelter for fish to escape the strong currents of the Mekong River in order to breed and lay eggs. Its dense vegetation attracts plenty of insects for mature and juvenile fish alike to feed and grow strong on before returning to the Mekong.

This generous natural bounty greatly contributes to the local communities’ food and economic security, as well as their culture. It is celebrated in the Songkhram Fish Festival at the end of each rainy season. The festivities involve costume parades and fish cooking–and eating–competitions.

The festival is an example of how culture is shaped by the surrounding natural resources. The Songkhram River directly supports the lives and livelihoods of millions of people with its natural wildlife and plantlife, to say nothing of the ecosystem services–the many benefits that humans freely receive from the ecosystem–that the river provides.

Though they may appear tranquil on the surface, the verdant wetlands of the Songkhram river are teeming with life. Photo by Santiparp Siriwattanaphaiboon

The WWF produced a report detailing the value and importance of the lower Songkhram River basin for the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the only international treaty that focuses solely on this type of ecosystem.

In its report, the WWF defines these wetlands as a Ramsar Site: an area of critical ecological significance, not just in Thailand, but globally. The lower Songkhram River basin is currently in the process of being formally recognized as a Ramsar Site. Of the 2,231 Ramsar Sites worldwide, Thailand contains 15, two of which are in Isaan; Bueng Khong Long and Kud Thing in Bueng Kan province.

The Songkhram River under attack

In 1995 the Songkhram River Dam project was proposed that envisioned an engineering megaproject involving damming the Songkhram River in order to sequester the annual floodwaters originating from the Mekong for agricultural use during the dry season. The project has so far failed to go ahead due to stiff resistance from locals under the banner of Songkhram River Conservation Group. The group is concerned that the project will disrupt the natural run of the river, and do immeasurable damage to the local ecology, fisheries, and the livelihoods of millions.

The group also fiercely objected to the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA), which declared the floodplain woodlands to be “scrubland of little to no value”. Locals pointed out that this flies in the face of their everyday reality, and at best represents a very poor grasp of ecology and economics. The project was eventually shelved by the cabinet of the day.

On February 1, 2018 the government gave the go ahead for the Irrigation Department to make preparations to build watergates on the Yam River in Sakon Nakhon. The watergates are part of a larger irrigation project to meet the water demands of farmers in other areas and end the flooding during the rainy season. As for the Songkhram River basin, the Irrigation Department has plans to build a total of nine watergates and irrigation systems, three of which have been completed.

The government has changed its tack. It appears that the Songkhram River Dam project of old is going to make a comeback, not as the megaproject that it once was, but as a series of smaller projects to be executed piecemeal. Worryingly, some of these piecemeal projects are just small enough to escape the legal requirement for an EIA. From this point onwards, the Songkhram River basin will likely undergo drastic changes, particularly in terms of ecology and land usage. The placing of watergates along the Songkhram River and where its mouth meets the Mekong River will be a rerun of the Pak Mun and Rasi Salai dams. That is, ecological disaster and the death of local communities in the service of ill-conceived notions of development.

The consequences of allowing land ownership in the Songkhram River basin

The floodplain woodlands are submerged during the rainy season, turning them into fishing grounds. In the past, when the waters receded in the dry season, the area was divided into areas for livestock grazing or crop planting. This was all done by community consensus, without resorting to legal protection by land title deeds of any description.

Things changed just prior to 1997 and over the past 20 years, land disputes have been festering in the area. Investors with large sums of money arrived, and began to register large parcels of land under their own names at the local land office, often without the knowledge of locals.

The investors then put this land up as collateral for bank loans. Then came the economic crisis of 1997, which wiped out many commercial enterprises along with the financial institutions which backed them. The title deeds for the land fell into the hands of asset management companies who sold the land on the open market to the highest bidder. This put the new owners of the land on a collision course with the communities, many of which have been unwilling to accept the loss of their communal lands. Some of these disputes are still in court to this day.

Around five years ago, the government began a push to speed up the issuing of SorPorKor 4-01 land title deeds for agricultural use, which resulted in large amounts of floodplain woodlands and fields falling into private hands. This did away with the communal nature of the land usage in the area, and took with it the communal management and protection of the ecology.

Today much of the land now bears oil-producing palm and rubber trees, rice fields, and other cash crops. Gone are much of the floodplain woodlands. The local fishing scene is also a lot quieter than it had once been, since the fish are far fewer in number and variety. The chances of returning to how it used to be seem very remote.

Developing and rehabilitating the Songkhram River sustainably

All dams and watergates on the Songkhram River must be stopped from blocking the natural flow of silt from the Mekong River that is vital for the fertility of the land. Serious measures to restore and conserve the floodplain woodlands must be put in place because the fish of the Mekong River depend on the Songkhram River basin to breed.

The government should support the development of natural freshwater fisheries. Beyond catching fish in the waters, pond or even lake-sized fish traps can be constructed. Fish-farming is not necessary when the yield from nature is plentiful enough; all we have to do is protect nature’s production capacities.

The land which fell into the hands of private investors who only sought to exploit the land registration loophole for unrelated commercial enterprises, should be returned to the commons. Water crises during the dry season are avoidable if environmentally harmful and water-intensive cash crops unsuited to the local ecology are also avoided.

This story was first published in Thai on May 7, 2019. Translated by The Isaan Record.

Dr. Santiparp Siriwattanaphaiboon is a lecturer at the Faculty of Science, Udon Thani Rajabhat University. He focuses on river ecology and natural resource management in Northeast Thailand.